Looking Back on the USMNT: Thoughts on the USMNT against Belgium and into the Future

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Crushing. Exasperating. Frustrating. Slap any adjective you want on the way the USMNT went out; it doesn’t really matter. Sure, the team had their chances, but it doesn’t change the fact that they went out in the Round of 16 (albeit, against a Belgian side that was much stronger than the Ghanians in 2010). To a casual fan, it might seem like the team hasn’t made any real progress, especially when you consider their appearance in the quarterfinals in 2002. But that is certainly not the case.The USMNT still played a very defensive style when facing some of the top teams in this World Cup. You might say that this is no different from past American national teams, whose commitment to fitness and effort enabled them to scratch out just enough goals to succeed. Look at 2002, specifically against Portugal and Mexico, two of the more famous wins for the United States in their soccer history (apologies on the video quality, but HD wasn’t really a thing when I was eight). But is that wrong? Should we commit to playing the same sort of offensive, free-flowing game that we do when facing the likes of Jamaica or Cuba in CONCACAF? I say no.

Goals are usually rare occurrences in a soccer game (unless you’re Germany against Brazil in this year’s semifinals), so that brings into question the best strategy to winning big games. While you can talk all you want about playing a free-flowing, attacking style, there comes a time when everything gets much tighter. What makes players like Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo so special is that they can create a “moment of brilliance,” that puts their team over the top. Does the USMNT have that kind of player in their system? It’s hard to say when the machine was not operating at its peak. Not having Jozy Altidore up top was a major issue for the USMNT in keeping possession. Clint Dempsey, as gritty and hard-working as he is, is not a target man. When there is no big, strong player to collect long balls, the space that the midfielders have to work with shrinks significantly. Right now, the USMNT does not have the two or three creative players (let alone one) that you need to break out of those incredibly tight spaces.

And for all the talk about Spain’s beautiful tiki-taka, take a look at some of the scorelines from their triumph at the World Cup in South Africa. The Spanish won games by scores of 2-0, 2-1, 1-0, 1-0, 1-0, and 1-0. When the going gets tough, the goals usually disappear. Who knows if the USA will ever produce a player that people around the world will know by one name. But if the American youth system can start to churn out players that are good enough on the international level to make the key passes to unlock defenses, it is possible that the USMNT will be a feared team on the international stage.

All of this goes to show that it isn’t as easy as it might seem to be a giant in the world of soccer. If it were, doing so wouldn’t be as special. But the academy system is developing under Jurgen Klinsmann’s watch. And with that, we can reasonably have hope that this team will be a threat down the line. — Carl Yedor

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The USA’s loss to Belgium may sting for four years, but it certainly gave cause for optimism for the future. That said, it is time to say farewell to some American greats. Tim Howard put on a historic performance today, but at age 35 it is unlikely that we will see him in Russia for the 2018 World Cup. Whomever (today, it looks like Brad Guzan) steps up in 2018 will have some large shoes to fill. Clint Dempsey is 31, which means he will most likely not be the player he is today. His creative presence in the final third will definitely be missed. For Beasley, his fourth appearance at the World Cup was a remarkable feat and an indication of how valuable he has been to the team over the years. Jermaine Jones will be one of the central midfielders leaving us after solidifying the middle for the United States since 2009. Kyle Beckerman’s determination and work rate were critical assets to this team. From a talent perspective, he may have been the worst player on the roster, but his effort compensated for that. And finally, we have Chris Wondolowski, originally a long shot to make the squad, who eventually earned a spot on the team with some strong performances in the past year.

We have not seen the last of Michael Bradley or Jozy Altidore, along with a defense that could have four returning starters in Geoff Cameron, Fabian Johnson, Omar Gonzalez, and Matt Besler. DeAndre Yedlin shocked many with his impressive World Cup performance, showing flashes of the old skipper Steve Cherundolo in his prodigious debut. At age 20, we will be seeing him for a long time. And all the Julian Green hype seems justified, at least for now. In his first two minutes of play he volleyed a cross against one of the world’s top goalkeepers, into the net. Oh, and he is nineteen. There’s a reason it was a big deal that Jurgen Klinsmann recruited him away from the Germans (not like they need the extra help).

The result is identical to last World Cup, but it does not feel the same by any means. What Klinsmann and the roster did this tournament was remarkable. In what could have been labeled a “transition World Cup” for the United States roster, the players can hold their heads high knowing that they defied the odds in advancing and were close on several occasions to scoring a goal that could have pushed them through to the quarterfinals. Realistically, this roster never really had a chance at winning the World Cup, as was made evident by the Germans in the final group stage match. That being said, this team will be as hungry as ever. A World Cup Semifinals could be in the offing soon, and it would not surprise me if we are up there with the powerhouses and are no longer considered an underdog, but an intimidating matchup. — Nick Barton

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The Americans lost to a decidedly better Belgian side, and, frankly, the result was no less than what we deserved. Amidst all the sweeping conclusions being drawn from the World Cup exit, and all the talk about the state of the sport in America, I’ll look a tad more specifically at the team itself and point out some harsh realities. Omar Gonzalez can’t pass the ball on the ground, and I doubt he’d have even made the 23 to Brazil if he were two or three inches shorter. In an offensive system that runs through Michael Bradley, you often need the defensive players behind Bradley to play an important role in getting him the ball. Gonzalez has proved that he is incapable of doing that with any sort of confidence or consistency. It will be interesting to see how his development factors into Jurgen’s plans over the next four years.

Clint Dempsey is obviously deadly with his right foot, and good (not great, but good) with his left. That said, I can’t help but feel he shoots with his left too often. Several times against Belgium, Dempsey received the ball, turned, and faced a defender playing him straight on (not shading him one way or another). Clint likes to lean right, and then accelerate left and try to catch the keeper—perhaps shading to Dempsey’s strong side, perhaps not—off guard. Deuce has scored some great lefty goals over the years (last summer against Germany  and two weeks ago against Ghana come to mind), but if you have a chance to get the ball on your strong foot, you should make every effort to do so, and not just settle for your weaker left. Dempsey may not be part of the plan for 2018, but let’s hope he does well as he rides off into the sunset of his decorated career. — Matt Bell

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Let’s talk about the present. It is often overlooked in favor of the past and the future, the venerated history and the tantalizing dream. The present is the middle child after all, and as we all know, those seem to be the most easily ignored. So, by the same token, it is important to give some attention to the current edition of the US Men’s National Team.

Calm down, now. Brazil 2014 won’t be forgotten. Quite the opposite; in fact, it will be remembered for quite a while. How could it not be? Every moment the USMNT took the pitch seemed fraught with drama. Brazil 2014 stands no chance of being deleted from the American footballing conscience.

Brazil 2014 will be seen as the “foundation” for wholesale fandom in the United States. It will be known for the “emergence” of Julian Green and DeAndre Yedlin. This will be the Cup of Tim Howard’s swan song, Landon Donovan’s sudden disappearance, Jurgen’s tactical guile. Sadly too, this will be the cup of pulled hamstrings. But just as importantly, it will never again be some things.

We will never again be in awe of Tim Howard in quite the same way, never again feeling the disbelief wash over us as his heroics kept multiplying. We will see John Brooks’s goal many times over, but we shall never feel that American pride just as we did in the 86th minute against Ghana, the hopes of a nation and the dreams of a man dovetailing. And while we will surely rue that Portuguese equalizer until the end of the time, when we remember the agony, we will never feel the pain hit quite as deep as it did on that day in the Amazon.

This World Cup reminded us all again what it feels like when the ball doesn’t bounce your way. Some may think this is due to tactics, injuries, or mistakes, but that doesn’t really do the team’s performance justice. You could probably say that the USMNT was guilty of not keeping enough of the ball to really put their stamp on games. But if this version of the USMNT was guilty of anything, it was guilty of this: keeping us glued to the screen. — Peter Barston

Images courtesy of ABC News, King5, Bleacher Report, Denver Post

Follow Carl on Twitter: @CarlYedor61
Follow Matt on Twitter: @mjbell16
Follow Peter on Twitter: @peatebutterston
Follow Nick on Twitter: @TriniNick_James
Follow GSABR on Twitter: @GtownSports
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